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Friday, February 25, 2011

BANISHED: The Mystery of Homemade Pasta

Tender, Delicious Pasta
Pasta making has always intimidated me. Creating this essential food staple from only two simple ingredients, flour and eggs, seemed almost counterintuitive and mysterious to me. However, I have always wanted to make my own pasta. So last year, I bought a shiny new pasta maker, despite the fact that all those cranks and rollers and cutters looked slightly dangerous.  I signed up for a pasta making class at Chef Central in Hartsdale, New York, and brought the pasta maker with me. The teacher at Chef Central  was quite patient, showed me how to use it and I learned to use it quite well.  It is actually quite easy.

Pasta made WITHOUT a machine is not so easy.   My Nonna used to make pasta herself, and there was no machine.  The traditional Italian Abruzzese housewife made the pasta with nothing more than a long, thin rolling pin and plenty of kneading action, resulting, I expect,  in very strong forearms.  I remember long strands of pasta hanging from improvised racks, flour everywhere, a big mess.

 Pasta Machine
For this posting I will try to demystify pasta making so if you ever decide to do it, you will know what ingredients to buy, how to prepare it,  what to expect, and what to avoid.

Preparing to Make Pasta
When setting out to make my own pasta, I researched the ingredients. The most helpful source was in a cookbook by Marsella Hazan, entitled Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  Even though the pasta class was helpful, they had made the pasta dough ahead of time.  So all I knew what how to operate the machine.  I really needed to find out how to actually make a good dough on my own.

First I researched the kind of flour needed. I found in the Fairway Market the soft wheat "00" (doppio-zero) flour used by most Italian cooks to make pasta. Soft wheat 00 flour is silky smooth and similar to talcum powder in texture, slightly different than commonly used all-purpose flour found in every supermarket.  Although I used this flour according to Hazan all purpose flour makes a fine product and is in some ways superior as the pasta has more body but is still very tender.

I also found out that semolina flour, or hard durum wheat flour, is not used in homemade pasta as it is very difficult for the home cook to work with. It is only suitable for factory made pasta.  In fact, you will never find manufactured pasta made with soft wheat flour as it is much too delicate. Even those pastas that purport to be fresh, but are in a cellophane package, are not made with soft wheat. They are delicious but still made with durum wheat.


Pasta & Egg "Volcano"

1 cup "00" or all purpose flour (approximate)
2 eggs

Makes approximately 3/4 of a pound of pasta, or three good-sized  servings.

Beating the Eggs
Prepare a clean work surface. I use a large wooden cutting board not used for meat.  Marble or granite is a poor surface because it is too cool and will cause the dough to contract.

Place the flour on the cutting board and make a mound, as tall as you can make it.  Hollow out a space in the center, like a volcano, and break the eggs into the center.  Beat the eggs with a fork, taking care not to spill  the eggs over the edges of the center of the mound, for about one minute. With your fingers, draw the flour into the egg mixture a bit at a time, and then shape it into a tight dough.  It is done and ready to knead when you can poke your finger in the dough and it is not sticky. If too sticky, just add more flour.
Cutting into Sections
When it feels right, nice and smooth, flatten the dough and knead.  How to knead: flatten the dough into a disk and fold it towards you, pushing against the mound with the heels of your hands with your fingers bent. Keep doing this, folding and kneading, in a clockwise direction, until the dough is smooth, about a few minutes. The Italian housewives kneaded for a much longer time but the pasta machine takes care of most of the kneading for you. After kneading, form the dough into a shape the size of a sausage link, and cut it into six pieces. Flatten a piece with your hand, covering the rest with plastic wrap to avoid drying.

Through the Roller, Over and Over
Flattened Dough in Machine
Now you are ready to use the pasta maker.  Carefully read the manufacturer's instructions as each manufacturer creates a machine with a slightly different design. Attach the pasta maker to a table or counter using the c-clamp or vise provided with the machine, and lay a clean dishtowel on the end where the pasta will come out. Take the flattened disk and feed it into the roller end of the pasta maker at the widest setting, 3 or 4 times, then the next wide setting, several times.  You will see the dough come out thinner and thinner. My pasta maker has 8 settings, 8 being the widest and 1 being the thinnest. When I set the gage at 2, the pasta was too thin and delicate.  I found 4 or 5 to be the best thickness.
Wide Noodles

Ready for Machine!
You can feed the flattened dough through the pasta cutters on the machine, or you can cut them yourselves with a pizza or ravioli cutter, or you can roll the pasta lengthwise and slice it with a knife for some nice long noodles.  This takes some skill, so I prefer the machine at this point. 

Thin Noodles
Pasta makers usually have two cutters, allowing you to choose between wide pasta, or fettucini, and narrow pasta, which comes out looking like spaghetti but with more of a squarish shape.  While carefully feeding the flattened and thin pasta dough though the cutters, pull the strands out gently with your hand and place them on a clean towel.  You can make them fresh or dry them. If you prefer to dry them, you let the pasta rest on the towels until they dry a bit but are still pliable, and then take a few strands and wind them around your fingers to make a small nest.  I placed these nests in a plastic container, uncovered, until totally dry. You can only store them when they are totally dry otherwise they will form mold. I used mine, the fettucine, the first night, and the pasta nests of spaghetti, the next night. They did not dry completely; they were brittle almost like boxed pasta, but way more delicate.

Ooops!  Done
When you are ready to make the pasta, have the table set and the sauce of your choice made, keeping it  hot and ready to serve.  Fill your pasta pot with cold water and add one teaspoon of salt. Bring it to a brisk boil, and all at once,carefully place the pasta in the pot, and stir gently to make sure the strands do not stick together.  It cooks very quickly, taking only a minute or two. Remove immediately when it is at its desired firmness, only determined by tasting, and drain in a colander. Loosen the pasta by shaking the colander a bit.   Do not add olive oil.  Serve in warm dishes...nobody likes cold pasta!

My pasta was very delicate, and held the sauce very well. I couldn't believe I made this pasta from scratch,, just like my Nonna did, so many years ago.

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